5 New Things We Learned About COVID-19 In May 2021

How long does coronavirus immunity last? Should we be concerned about a new variant discovered in India? Here's the latest.
A lot of positive discoveries about COVID-19, immunity and treatment were made in the last month.
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A lot of positive discoveries about COVID-19, immunity and treatment were made in the last month.

What we know about COVID-19 seems to change by the minute.

It’s understandable, given the massive scale of the pandemic. Right now, more than 170 million cases have been confirmed around the world. And even a year-plus into the pandemic, the virus and ways to address it are still relatively new to the medical world, so researchers are learning as they go.

The amount of information out there about the coronavirus is dizzying. It’s hard to keep track of what’s known, what’s a myth and what guidance we should follow. That’s why we’ve rounded up five of the most important new things we learned about COVID-19 in May:

1. The Pfizer vaccine is safe and effective for kids age 12 and up

Arguably the biggest coronavirus-related news from May was the Food and Drug Administration’s decision to expand the emergency use authorization of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to children ages 12 to 15 in the United States. In just over two weeks after the approval came through, about 2.5 million people rolled up their sleeves for their first shot, The New York Times reported last week.

That surge in vaccinated tweens has profound implications for kids and their families. They’re not just much less likely to get infected with COVID-19, they’re also able to get back to their old routines. As pediatrician Kelly Fradin previously told HuffPost: “Children who are vaccinated should be more free to socialize, travel, see friends, sing in a choir, play high-contact sports and overall return to normal.”

The expanded authorization has clear implications for the course of the pandemic here in the U.S. as well. As The New York Times explained: “COVID-19 vaccinations among the country’s newly eligible tweens and teens have given a much needed boost to the nation’s campaign, at a time when vaccination rates have fallen among the oldest age groups and mostly stalled among young adults.”

2. Fully vaccinated people don’t need a mask indoors — most of the time

Mask guidance has changed a dizzying number of times during the pandemic, which has made it challenging for people to stay on top of recommendations as they make personal decisions about the relative safety of various activities.

And May brought a pretty big change on the masking front, when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidelines saying people who are fully vaccinated can ditch their mask in most indoor settings. The exceptions are if local restrictions say otherwise, or if you’re in a business or workplace that requires masks. Also, masks are still required on public transportation, the CDC says.

“What we’re doing now with the relaxation of the restrictions on people who are vaccinated is trying to get back to a degree of normality, which people who get vaccinated deserve to have that,” Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, told CNN.

3. Global health experts are really troubled by the new variant discovered in India, known as the Delta variant

With case numbers and hospitalizations falling dramatically in the U.S., it can be easy to forget that elsewhere in the world the pandemic is raging. India, in particular, has experienced a surge in new cases and deaths — and experts at the World Health Organization are very closely tracking the Delta variant, as it’s now called, and the role it might be playing in that country’s current crisis.

“We are classifying this as a variant of concern at a global level,” Maria Van Kerkhove, a technical lead on COVID-19 with WHO said in a press briefing last month. “There is some available information to suggest increased transmissibility.”

Fortunately, so far the vaccines that are currently available in the U.S. and abroad have been shown to be effective against most new strains, including the Delta variant. But public health officials note that the more opportunity the virus has to spread and mutate, the greater the likelihood of new variants arising that can evade our current vaccine options. Also, India is in the midst of a vaccine shortage that is likely worsening its current public health crisis.

4. Most people who’ve been hospitalized for COVID have long-term symptoms, too

One of the largest studies yet to look at long-term outcomes among people who were hospitalized for COVID-19 found that 70% of them were still grappling with symptoms six months post-hospitalization. The most common long-term symptoms were shortness of breath, fatigue and sleep disorders, but people also struggled with loss of taste and smell, brain fog, mental health issues, chest pain and fevers.

The study really points to the urgent need for continued research into long-haul COVID, and for immediate, practical support for those recovering from the virus. As one rheumatologist recently told HuffPost: “We have to create new systems, like COVID long-haul clinics that some institutions are creating, or helping people learn coping mechanisms.”

5. Immunity in people who were infected with COVID-19 may last a very long time

One bit of (potentially) good news from May is that immunity to COVID-19 may last for years in people who were infected with the virus. A small new study published in the journal Nature found that certain cells in the bone marrow of people who’d been infected with COVID-19 and recovered essentially remembered the virus, which means they’d likely be able to make new antibodies if they encountered the virus again down the road.

“We found antibody-producing cells in people 11 months after first symptoms. These cells will live and produce antibodies for the rest of people’s lives,” study author Ali Ellebedy, an associate professor of pathology and immunology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, said in a press release. “That’s strong evidence for long-lasting immunity.”

It’s not clear yet whether a similar kind of immune response might be possible in people who are simply vaccinated against COVID-19 (though Ellebedy and his colleagues are working on a study looking at that question right now), and the new study is small and still pretty preliminary. At this point, experts generally believe booster shots will be necessary. Still, it’s good to know that people who got COVID-19 might really be protected from getting infected again for a pretty long time.

Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.

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